The opening round of the Western and Southern Open is a tennis junkie’s fantasy. With over one hundred of the world’s top men’s and women’s players all seeing action, it’s impossible not to stumble onto some intriguing matches and engaging personalities.
Fans who purchase a reserved seat in the main stadium also have access to matches and practice sessions played throughout the entire Lindner complex. For most of the accessory venues, it’s first come, first served. So imagine sitting in the front row of the grandstand court for the next six hours—up close and personal–watching professional players at the top of their game battle it out on the blue asphalt courts.
With my media pass in hand, my plan is to hop from venue to venue in a valiant attempt to get as close as possible to some of the world’s top tennis talent. Without sounding too creepy, I want to be able to sniff Rafa’s sweat. I’ll keep a slanted eye on the tournament scoreboard occasionally, but most of my immediate attention will be focused on the peripheral off-the-court tennis experience.
The experience for me begins with Media check-in. It’s a bit disorganized as vendors, volunteers, and security personnel scurry hastily around the venue attempting to act productive. Everyone looks so cute in their color-coded Fila outfits but I’m not totally sold on the tournament security. The guard posted by the player’s lounge looks like he’s about twelve years old and points me in the right direction without nary a glance up from his cellphone screen. After getting my bearings, I settle comfortably into the air-conditioned media center located high above Center Court. With my own private cubicle, complimentary snacks and soft drinks on hand, I’m hunkered down and ready to report on the exciting week ahead.
One of the things I love about tennis is that it’s truly a multi-national sport. Who doesn’t love a “G’day, mate” greeting coming out from the locker room or a “Vamos” emanating from the practice courts? My major gripe is that most of the international names look like they’re always missing vowels, which plays havoc with my spellchecker and autocorrect functions when reporting stats and scores. Kyrgios, Zverev, Kvitova, and Mlandenovic—I’d like to buy a vowel, please.
One of the most popular areas on the Lindner Tennis Center grounds is the player’s entrance. There’s always a crowd milling about waiting to get their oversized fuzzy tennis ball signed by the next superstar chauffeured through the gate. I’ll be the first to admit, I can’t recognize ninety percent of the current players on tour, but every single one of them coming through this entrance looks like they just stepped out of a fitness magazine. It’s enough to give any average Joe tennis fan an irreparable inferiority complex.
At these tournaments, big names still draw the biggest crowds. The number of spectators on a John Isner practice court far outnumber the patrons tuned into a real match featuring Sorana Cirstea and Aleksandra Krunic. Whenever Nadal or Venus schedules an on-court practice session, you can forget about breathing room. Tennis fans are no different from normal people. We secretly crave relationships and being in such close proximity to our athletic heroes simply makes us somehow feel better connected.
So far, everyone I’ve met here appears as if they’re having a ball. Unlike many sporting venues, it’s a diverse crowd—ranging from the tennis prodigy in the speed serve cage, to the tanned soccer mom decked out in her fashionable Dri-FIT tennis skirt, to the elderly Japanese couple sharing a smoothie—all brought together by their love for the game. The only complaints I’ve heard are about the parking situation. Evidently, the gravel tournament lots stretch all the way to Dayton and there are far too few shuttles in operation. I do feel kind of bad for those parked in the next time zone. Just not bad enough to trade places with them as I casually stroll to my car, conveniently located in the media lot just a few steps outside the back gate. Life is good at the Western and Southern Open. Now if only the top players would just quit withdrawing.
John Huang is a guest columnist for Bluegrass Sports Nation. If you enjoy his writing, you can reach him at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.